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Doomsday Clock and Related Last Things

Even as I was reading about the latest Wikileaks, I discovered that the title of my post about the Doomsday Clock, etc. had been turned into gibberish or some code. So I thought it might be time to post it again!

An Open Letter to Timothy J. Sloan, CEO of Wells Fargo

Dear Mr. Sloan,
I don’t envy your new responsibilities as CEO of beleaguered Wells Fargo, from forging fraught decisions in the board room to facing protesters on your own front lawn.  No doubt you have been working hard to restore trust in your banking services.  In the interests of reshaping the WF image,I assume, our PMA account package has just been re-branded as “Portfolio,” and functions like Bill Pay have been been redesigned to improve our “online banking experience”.  Statements have been made about ending aggressive sales practices and withholding executive bonuses.
Yet there remains (for me) the more serious issue of Wells Fargo’s shortsighted investment strategies–most notably its massive financial support for retrograde fossil fuel projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline. It’s true that virtually every major investor holds petroleum stocks, so vastly profitable for so very long.  Still, the terrifying realities of climate change are speeding the move from coal, oil, and gas to renewable energy such as solar and wind.  Even pragmatic China is investing some $360 billions in renewable energy.
Seattle has divested its Wells Fargo stock.  Yale, Stanford, and the University of California are in various stages of divestment from fossil fuels. Some analysts have questioned the financial effectiveness of divestment as a tool.  Nonetheless, to keep one’s own funds from being used destructively is not only symbolic. The Dakota Access Pipeline will carry as much as 570,00 gallons of crude oil per day, and whether it is used only domestically as was originally claimed, or exported, as is now permitted, the resultant environmental pollution will be shared globally.
Several friends have asked me to report if and when I can locate a socially responsible bank. I think that I have. These quite prosperous citizens all bank with Wells Fargo and dread the mechanics of changing, as do I.
My husband and I have been with Wells Fargo even longer than you, Mr. Sloan. We transferred our accounts from Bank of America because of its investment in the apartheid government in South Africa. Protest divestment seems to have worked in that case.
Maybe it will work again, in the best interests of the planet.
I have grandchildren.  Do you?

Very sincerely,

Frances Smith Starn



I was  in the “wait and see” camp, and now we have seen.  

Closest to home, the helicopters were back above Berkeley this week, along with the police from nine campuses and the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department. The latest techniques in protest enhancement include dramatic use of fireworks and safely contained fires.


Social media will soon feature these scenes of the conflagration from scores of phones, in a technique pioneered in the Arab revolutions.

Potus, always alert, tweeted a pre-dawn threat to defund Berkeley, for allowing and then cancelling, in the face of violent protest, the appearance of a truly scary young right-wing provocateur  invited by the College Republicans. Nobody gained from the hullabaloo but the anarchist Black Bloc, of whom we’ll no doubt hear more.

Meanwhile we await Potus’s promised actions against the ongoing carnage in Syria and the globalizing terror of ISIS.  Bombing ISIS does involve continued slaughter of civilians. The proposed Syrian safe zones for refugees would have to be defended. One thing he has already clarified:  there’s no haven for Syrian refugees in the U.S.  

In the early years of the rebellion, foreign journalists were variously expelled by the Assad regime or beheaded by the rebels.  The major news organizations retreated to report on Syria from desks in Beirut or Istanbul. Only very lately have we had lucid analyses of events in Syria and the Levant. ( See Joshua Landis in TPR and Rania Khalek in FAIR.)  Recent accounts explain how incoherent U.S.and U.N. interventions have only served to lengthen the conflict. There have never been “moderate” rebels to “support” with arms.

Meanwhile, no new road to peace has emerged amid the ruins of ancient cities and hardscrabble desert. But given Potus’s apparent bond with Putin, what seems likely is the restoration of the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad. For the ten years prior to the serial eruptions of the Arab revolution in 2010, Assad managed to keep the peace in Syria.  Sunnis and Shiites, Alawites and Druze, Iraqi Christians and Kurds, and Saudi versus Iranian oil interests–all were prevented from annihilating each other. Assad and his wife were popular enough to be able to appear in public without bodyguards.

Assads as tourists in October 2010

Assads as tourists in October 2010

Early on, Assad had outspokenly condemned the West’s war in Iraq as illegal, and even Obama never forgave him. (Two tall, slender, intelligent, somewhat arrogant men with attractive, charismatic wives…)   Oil makes strange allies, but when the U.S. partners with such murderous regimes as that in Saudi Arabia, condemning the heavy-handed security measures of Assad’s generals could be seen as somewhat hypocritical.

Last week Russia, Iran and Turkey met in the capital of Kazakhstan, in the Astana Rixos President Hotel. For only $1,913, including flight and hotel, I could have provided first-hand news of the conference. As it is, we had to rely on the New York Times. 

International conference on peace in Syria, Hotel Rixos, Kazakhstan

International conference on peace in Syria, Hotel Rixos, Kazakhstan

“Palm trees planted indoors belied the subzero temperatures and blowing snow outside, as a flute-and-piano duo wearing evening gowns played “Strangers in the Night” and the theme from “Titanic.” Western diplomats, largely sidelined, huddled in the hotel’s Irish pub, and the United States ambassador to Kazakhstan, who was invited over Iran’s objections and attended only as an observer, avoided reporters..”

While the diplomats dance and drink in Astana, Syrian rebels amass in Idlib province in the northwest, where the Syrian government’s Minister of Reconciliation has been relocating rebels from Aleppo and Daraa.  

Daraa, the southernmost settlement in Syria, had been the main stopover between Baghdad and Damascus for a thousand years or so. When we stopped there for water on a hot October day in 2010, the dusty square was filled with what I gathered later were refugees from the drought in the northeastern desert, Others had moved across its porous borders with Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan.

Not surprising that this place would be the Syrian flashpoint of the Arab uprisings. A few months later, some bored Daraa boys posted anti-government graffiti and were arrested.  The locals massed to protest, and government security forces firing on the crowd were filmed on cell phones, not unlike the chroniclers in Berkeley this week.  When one of the protesters died, videos of the funeral went viral, sympathetic rebellions broke out across the country and were brutally repressed.

Protests erupted next in Deir ez Zor, a dreary town on the Euphrates that was once an important trading post between the Roman Empire and India.  In October 2010, we Americans were welcomed as the harbingers of coming tourist masses. The owner of our hotel gave us a preview of his new restaurant, which had a southwest American motif and dance-hall chandeliers. Tourism had increased fourfold in the past year, he said.

Deir-ez-zor, August 2014

Deir-ez-zor, August 2014

Further south, we explored the ruins of Sumerian Mari and Roman Dura-Europus, where the ancient east-west trade routes intersected with the Euphrates. Returning to Deir, we crossed the old suspension bridge over the Euphrates; its eastern end was at the Iraqi border, then quiet.

Bridge across Euphrates from Syria to Iraq

Bridge across Euphrates from Syria to Iraq

Note:  Marking the long tradition of conquest in Syrian lands:  Daraa, Deir, and Dura all mean “fort” in different ancient languages.

Syria’s latest conflict has killed more than 300,000 people and forced 4.8 million to flee.  Turkey has taken in more than 2.7 million of them, according to the UNHCR, followed by Lebanon with more than a million, and Jordan with disputed figures, some 228,000 to Iraq, 115,000 to Egypt.

Some 6.6 million have been internally displaced, driven from their homes. These would be the inhabitants of Potus’s projected Safe Zones.

A million ambitious Syrians have applied for asylum in Europe, and we read in the news just how few of them are welcomed.    

The U.S., that nation founded by immigrants on the backs of its natives, has found room for some 14,000.  But no more.  Potus and his advisor, the Cromwell of Breitbart Manor, have closed the gates after the Syrian forbears of the likes of Steve Jobs, Paula Abdul, and Jerry Seinfeld. According to an Ellis Island Record, Selim Hosni, Jerry Seinfeld’s maternal grandfather. arrived in 1909 from Aleppo, Syria, aboard the S.S. Hudson with his wife and infant daughter.  

In any event, this is no time for comedy.  Or is it?




venice & dolomites

Dispatch from the Laguna

Italian friends have been most sympathetic about our recent election.  After all, they say, we survived Berlusconi.  It’s not the end of the world.



Silvio Berlusconi & Amico

They offer us political asylum, but then say that of course we are needed in our own country.  Meanwhile, we are still here to see them through their coming referendum vote on the so-called “Italicum” reform of their electoral system.

The dynamic young Italian leader, Matteo Renzi, has pushed for a “Si” on the referendum, but is canny enough to have backed off as “No” rises in the polls


renzi.jpg (680×380)

Matteo Renzi (technically irreducible, perhaps politically as well)

Renzi has been intrepid in many ways, not least in defending the rescue and accommodation of many thousandof profughi, refugees, arriving in Italy during the current migration crisis. Renzi points out that while Italy pays hundreds of millions of euros in this humanitarian mission, most other European governments have used their euros to build walls.

At a pizzeria on the Strada Nova the guy behind the counter couldn’t decide whether to use English or Italian. I suggested Cinese and we both laughed.  I asked where he was born and he said Romania. He has been in Italy for fourteen years and lives in Mestre, twenty minutes away by bus on the mainland. We talked about the high rents and long commutes in Venice and California. He said he could give my husband and me one room and shared use of his Mestre apartment for 350 euros a month. I said that unfortunately we already had a rental contract through December. He said that he really wanted to learn more English so that he could get a better job, and I said that I could give him lessons if I was staying longer.

I only had a 50-euro bill to pay for my pizza. He smiled and ran off with it to get change. I wasn’t really worried when he didn’t reappear for ten minutes, but it did occur to me that 50 euros was probably more than a couple of days’ take-home pay. He said his name was Nikolai, Nicola in Italian, he added. I said mine was Frances, Francesca in Italian. See you tomorrow? he said.

A  hundred yards on, I stopped to let a herd of school children go ahead of me across a narrow bridge. Meanwhile I went to a kiosk to get a paper with news about the latest earthquake in the Marche, and about the crises with the new refugees. The earthquake had definitely won that news cycle; there was not a word about the town in the Veneto that had barricaded its streets against the arrival of a dozen refugee women and children to be billeted in an empty hotel.

The vendor gave me two papers even after I had said, conversationally, that my husband usually bought the Gazzettino so I would only take La Repubblica. I said that I was sorry my Italian was so bad. He said, no, MY Italian is bad. I asked where he was born, and he said Bangladesh. He had only been in Italy for six months, he said in English. Before that, he had lived in London for six years, but it was too expensive. His brother, who had been in Italy for a long time, owned the kiosk. He lived with the brother nearby, and planned to go to school to learn Italian so that he could get a better job. My name is Francesca, said I. His is Nabis. See you tomorrow, I said. La Repubblica is running a series on changes in the Italian language, so I will be back. (I wish that Nicola’s pizza had been better.)

Of course it was only an idle thought that Nicola and Nabis could exchange language lessons. But maybe with ingenious use of cellphones and social media…some kind of networking?

I had been hoping to make myself useful in the refugee crisis, perhaps teaching or translating, during our Italian stay, but that too was an idle thought.  The needy refugees were not in la Serenissima, but in Mestre and smaller inland towns, Veneto, where, unfortunately, the locals are not always welcoming. In Venice the neediest refugees only come for the day trade, foreigners passing from Rialto to San Marco from cruise ship to gondola, who might need an umbrella or a carnival mask, or will drop a euro into an outstretched hand.

Many constructive responses to the migrant crisis are to be found in the 2016 Architectural Biennale in Venice, too soon closing.  And note that funds for housing the homeless were voted in by healthy margins–at least in California. As Italian friends tell us, we’ll get through this somehow.



The Wild West, My Family Gold Mine, a Bordello Holiday, and Big Alma

Around the start of the last century, my grandfather and his cousin found gold on a slope an hour west of Mount Shasta, as the crow flies.  They lost no time homesteading a hundred forested acres around their mining claim. 



Mt. Shasta as seen from the Randolph Collier Roadside Safety Rest Stop

Not much gold emerged after that initial strike on Scott Mountain.  No matter: each summer several families of Smiths and Van Nesses trekked some three hundred miles from San Francisco and Oakland to camp out while they worked the mine and fished the high lakes of Trinity and Siskiyou counties. Eventually they built cabins. According to my father, the boys used serial pints of firewater to induce “Indian John,” to do most of the heavy work.


Little Bear Lake

My grandmother Anne and Grace Van Ness were best friends, small, sharp-tongued matriarchs dressed in no-nonsense jeans and gingham shirts, who kept their children, grandchildren and–to a lesser degree their husbands–in some kind of order. They went together to provision the camps in the little valley towns of Callahan and Etna. Most mornings there were sourdough pancakes on the wood stove, and most nights there was a lot of drinking and a campfire with marshmallows and tallish tales.

The families eventually ramified into two camps, separated only by a few hundred yards of creek and boulders. In time, notably after one Van Ness girl jilted one Smith boy, the families began to pull apart. The Van Nesses, although they generally had more money at hand than the Smiths, decided to sell off part of their half to lumber interests.

After the death of Granna Anne, the Smiths had their own problems. One cousin took over the mountain camp and let it be known that she had no use for professors like my husband, who had also been known to  go fishing with a Van Ness elder.


Collier  Hotel

After some ten years of summer exile, our enterprising son (also a professor, notably of Californian & Peruvian Indians ) decided to rent a small hotel in the Scott Valley, where our branch of the family could gather and make forays to the familiar lakes and swimming holes. The Collier Hotel in the town of Etna, with six bedrooms and several common rooms, served our needs perfectly.

We all assumed that our gracious inn was the former home of the late Randolph Collier, a California state senator known as the Silver Fox of the Siskiyous. A strapping fellow with a thatch of white hair, he had been able to secure regular servings from the pork barrel for his home county. He never saw a local bridge that didn’t need re-building, and the Collier-Burns Act of 1947 financed a surge of highway building that made California’s freeways famous for a time.  (Note: my father, seeing the main chance to support his family after the war, became a highway engineer, although he had always disliked cars and driving.)

Just now, in the course of my usual desultory research, I learned that the Collier Hotel, with its gracious southern-style verandah, had been purpose-built in 1897 as a brothel. I’m supposing that the rest of the family may think this is rather jolly. Some of us grew up with Westerns where the heroine was Miss Kitty, the local madam with a heart of gold, or someone very like her.

The Collier Hotel’s latest hosts are a lovely woman, born a Karuk Indian, and her amiable husband, a Desert Storm vet.  The Karuk, Klamath, and Shasta tribes are survivors. Countless Indians died in the western takeover of the Scott Valley. Though there were no Catholic missions in the north, perhaps the number who died of disease and preventive scalpings equaled those who died under the Christian fathers in the south of the state. (Children in California public schools still study the missions, but they do have more information than we did in the 1950s.) 

Etna, an old ranch town in the Scott River valley, pop. 737 (down 50 from last census) has a barbershop, an excellent hardware store and a small supermarket. You might see a cow or more likely a deer wandering down Main Street. For a while there was a fine little Vietnamese restaurant in town, but the locals never warmed to it, and the family moved on. I didn’t need to ask: Trump is undoubtedly the local choice. Etna has no newspaper now, but in 1900 there were two, feuding of course.  One editor called the other “a pin-headed cur”. 

Some weeks later, back in the Bay Area, a journalist friend recommended a show on the American West at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, our prettiest and certainly our most pretentious local museum, sited dramatically near the Golden Gate bridge. Built at the whim of Alma de Bretteville Spreckels, the museum is a copy of the French pavilion in the 1915 Panama-Pacific exposition, which was itself (tmi) a scaled-down copy of the Legion of Honor in Paris.  


Big Alma on the throne of Queen Marie of Romania

About the same time that gold was being discovered on Scott Mountain, “Big Alma,” the daughter of Danish (!) immigrants, was a popular San Francisco  artists’ model. After sugar tycoon Adolph Spreckels made so to speak an honest woman of her, she went to Paris to consort with Rodin, Loie Fuller, and other arty types, and to buy bushels of art for her collection.  

At another San Francisco museum, the De Young, you can view Ed Ruscha with his dependably wry perspective on the American West.  Let’s leave it there, for now.


From Tania’s Assault Rifle to Assad’s Instagrams

On February 4, 1974, newspaper heiress Patty Hearst was kidnapped from her Berkeley apartment. The hysteria soon led, in Jeffrey Toobin’s analysis,to today’s saturation broadcasting, live and worldwide, of breaking news of terror and violence. Mini-cameras in front of a Los Angeles bungalow relayed the shootout and incineration of Hearst’s captors to millions of American living rooms.

In the earlier 1970s there was no shortage of bombings and terrorist attacks at home and abroad.  But only with the advent of live television coverage in real time did audiences gain immediate access to crime scenes, the victims, the grievers,  the suspects and their agonized parents,  teachers, and therapists. Then there was the internet follow-up on social media. Little wonder that the promise of international fame has inspired homegrown psychopaths and jihadists alike. Campaigns such as “Zero Minutes of Fame” and “No Notoriety” ask news outlets to minimize shooters’ names and images. A Google Chrome extension will wipe mass killers’ images from your screen and replace them with the victims’.  (You can also have Trump’s name replaced automatically with a name of your choice, such as “Drumpf”.)   

Patty Hearst’s Berkeley apartment was one street over from our house, although we were living in Italy during that cold winter of her kidnapping, the oil embargo and Nixon’s impeachment. My husband was teaching a seminar at the University of Perugia, on the American presidency–far outside his field of Italian art and cultural history, but of great interest to the local leftists.

While Italy’s Red Brigade revolutionaries were better organized than the SLA, they were just beginning to wreak the havoc that culminated in the kidnapping and murder of former prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978, and the Bologna railroad station bombing in 1980.

The Watergate scandal fascinated Italian friends.  Their alarm at political corruption was not triggered by the low-level shenanigans of Nixon and his “plumbers”. Nonetheless,search  they do marvel now at the ascendance of Donald Trump.  However, having succumbed to nine years of Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister–and Italians know the power of a mouthy, narcissistic, misogynist demagogue. And Berlusconi had a complete media monopoly, whereas Drumpf has only clickbait. American journalists now seem to be belatedly on the attack.     

At the time of Watergate, Hearst, a 19 year-old transfer student at Berkeley when she was kidnapped and recruited by the S.L.A., had declared an art history major.


Olmec figurine, 1500-1000 b.c.e., not the carving that helped incriminate Hearst

Sadly, it was her attachment to an Olmec carving given her by a slain SLA comrade that helped to convict her as voluntary accessory to murder.

My husband hadn’t taught Hearst, but SLA chief Donald DeFreeze was enrolled in a U.C. extension course on world history, for which I happened to be the reader. DeFreeze, taking the snail-mail course from Vacaville Prison, seemed  barely literate, but did write a few labored lines on a number of assignments. He didn’t finish the course, presumably because he was transferred to Soledad, where he soon escaped.  I was vaguely uneasy while DeFreeze was still at large, and academic humiliation has indeed motivated the murder of more than one professor. DeFreeze died in the Los Angeles police raid.

Another student in that “postal” survey of world history was Edna Ann from Ketchikan. At the end of her carefully completed assignments, Edna Ann always appended some personal news…the spring thaw, the salmon fishing, her garden. I sent her an occasional postcard from Italy.  At that point Alaska had been a state for fifteen years. What did she make of Sarah Palin–and now of Donald Trump?    

Every newsmagazine cover in those years showed Patty Hearst, as the revolutionary “Tania,” with her pale cheekbones and dark combat gear, her jubilation at presidential clemency and finally, her pardon.



Glossy news magazines were supplanted by social media and the internet from the start of the five-year trajectory of the Syrian civil war. In March of 2011, the initial protests and crackdowns in Dar’aa were spread by amateur phone videos and quickly inflamed the entire country. Not all of the videos were authentic: one purported to show freshly-dug mass graves outside Dar’aa, and not until it had gone viral did someone notice that the license plate on a truck in the video was Iraqi, and perhaps the gravesite as well.

The Syrian civil war was so violent that journalists, officially banned from the country, were being killed right and left. Correspondents from the major news sources began to send dispatches from Lebanon and even further afield. Meanwhile the smartphone and the internet became the instruments of both the rebels and the regime.  Each has maintained a staff and budget for serious propaganda creation.  Funds for rebel efforts are estimated to be in the millions of dollars from internet organizers in the Persian gulf states alone.The Syrian rebel group Al-Tawhid Brigade, now dispersed, had a YouTube channel with 3,000 subscribers and a Facebook page with nearly 1,500 likes. 

Bashar al-Assad’s Instagram site today has more than 60,000 followers. His winsome wife, Asma, was the subject of a puff piece in Vogue Magazine published in the first weeks of the war in Syria and then hastily killed. I read the interview before it was pulled, and it depicted her believably as an attractive, socially responsible young mother with extremely expensive shoes. These days, the Instagram photos show her meeting with wounded soldiers or playing with orphaned children. The subtext is clearly to show that her husband, the mild-mannered ophthalmologist, is unlikely to be the perpetrator of chemical and barrel bomb attacks on his own people.


Asma & Bashar with their three children and the family of a wounded soldier






On Instagram, we can also view Bashar al-Assad shaking hands with Putin, and indeed  Russia is the most important player in the latest effort to end the long and disastrous war.



Dirty Tom, Trump Tower, San Francisco, Venice


Entrance hall in the 2016 Venice Architectural Biennale: ( 90 tons of recycled debris, from the 2014 Biennale!)


Across from me on the bus, an old man sat slumped, chin on chest, eyes closed. Greasy gray hair, white beard, grimy bronzed face. I tried to make out the title of one of the books jammed between junk in his bag on the floor. Elements… (of what?)

The woman next to me murmured something about the plight of the homeless in callous America. I said, that man seems familiar. Years ago at the Presbyterians’ (or Lutherans’) weekly drop-ins, his filthy hair had been brown, and he was known by some of us volunteers, not without affection, as Dirty Tom. Once he explained–he could be quite articulate–that he had always had severe aquaphobia and couldn’t tolerate the slightest contact with water.

Recounting a spell in the lockup ward in the local hospital, Tom had complained of the psychiatric resident, who turned out to have been our neighbor at that time. I remembered the neighbor saying then, “I don’t kid myself about being a father figure and doing good: there are guys in that ward who would like to KILL me.” Dirty Tom was one of them. He claimed that the doc had botched an electroshock treatment, and the young woman had died. I never heard the full story, but the neighbor did switch from psychiatry to family practice.

All of a sudden, the bus jolted, and the man’s eyes popped open, a startling blue in his grimy face, staring straight at me. He lurched to his feet, grabbed his pack, and got off at the next stop.

Recently I met up with a friend from my newspaper days. She, too, had eyes of a startling blue. She had written a few reviews for my books page, but then the paper died, she had a bad divorce, and we didn’t see each other for years. Catching up on each other’s concerns, I cited Syria, and she said that she was working with a young Syrian, through a group helping LGBTI refugees. Given the scope of the refugee crisis, I did wonder (silently) why the focus on such a niche category. Maybe she guessed my thought.“Listen, Francie,” she said, “What are you doing about the HOMELESS now? They’re still there. I don’t LIKE seeing them on the streets. I want you to DO something!”

She was right. After earnest but largely ineffectual years of volunteering, and some advocacy journalism, I had written a satirical novel 51YDCZ5H9VL._UY250_ juxtaposing Berkeley’s homeless with the gourmet revolution. I suppose that I had hoped that it might be read as a moral tract, despite the sappy cover. “Trickle-down gastronomy,” said the NYTimes.. “The epicurean culture collides with the culture of poverty”.  And the culture of poverty and madness, not least on the streets and in the parks of my neighborhood of Berkeley, Caifornia, continues to thrive.

By now, the homeless have come to fill the margins of the shrunken middle class. In the clement climates of San Francisco and Los Angeles, tent cities form new communities under freeway exchanges and in the parks.

Twitch Napier, who is homeless, sits with her dog, Shiva, near tents set up under the 101 Freeway along Division Street, part of a large homeless encampment, in San Francisco.

Twitch Napier, who is homeless, sits with her dog, Shiva, near tents set up under the 101 Freeway along Division Street, part of a large homeless encampment, in San Francisco, Feb. 25, 2016. An order by the city’s authorities to vacate the sidewalk tent camp in the commercial district has rekindled passions over the city’s longstanding homeless problem, which residents say has reached crisis levels. (Gabrielle Lurie/The New York Times)

An estimated one third of the homeless are mentally ill. And many of them are veterans.
During the Obama administration, spending tripled on homeless veterans’ housing and services, and the number in need went down by a third. Like too many of Obama’s initiatives, this has remained in the shadows.

We haven’t yet heard Donald Trump promise every homeless vet a condo. Early this year he did stage a benefit for homeless veterans in Iowa. By no coincidence, it was scheduled opposite a presidential primary debate where he was expected to come off badly. Not many of his efforts at distracting voters’ attention actually work.  Soon enterprising journalists dug up the story of Trump’s repeated attempts to get disabled veteran street vendors away from his Fifth Avenue property, which is already barricaded with topiary bollards. (Suggested campaign: Get unsightly old topiaries off Fifth Avenue.)


Perhaps it’s not news, but the emphasis now is to get homeless people housed first and treat their problems next. Los Angeles, like San Francisco, has not only a clement climate but a critical housing shortage that makes it next to impossible to find low-cost housing. Also just short of impossible is the treatment of psychological disorders and addictions in transit.

It’s taken decades, but measures to fund construction of special-needs housing are likely to be on the ballot in Los Angeles and probably statewide. Governor Brown has backed a $1.8 billion plan to use funds already in place for construction of housing for the homeless. California’s new director of Housing and Community Development, Ben Metcalf, seems to be that rara avis, an effective idealist, who has worked with successful housing programs in New York, Washington D.C. and San Francisco.

Another highly effective idealist is Alejandro Aravena, winner of the coveted Pritzker Prize, and director of the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale.

arquitecto Alejandro Aravena premio Pritzker 2016

arquitecto Alejandro Aravena premio Pritzker 2016

I haven’t got to this Biennale yet, but I know that the theme is “Reporting from the Front,” emphasizing the potential for architects, beyond purely aesthetic concerns, to improve the quality of life for many thousands of people who don’t go to museums or biennales for pleasure or enlightenment.  The show, intelligently reviewed this very day by Christopher Hawthorne in the L.A. Times, “collects work from a range of architects operating on the forward lines of what Aravena calls “battles” against inequality, crushing poverty and environmental crisis and puts it on display with the informality of a journalistic sketch.”

The Chilean architect has devised original, low-cost “incremental” housing schemes where the basic half of each housing unit–roof, kitchen, bathroom–is built by the developer, and the rest, according to need (and means) is completed by the residents. Aravena’s firm has put the successful plans for four different projects online as Open Sources.  (Ben Metcalf, alert!)


Housing scheme in Iquique, Chile










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